Traumatic Incidents: How to identify them and get help

Traumatic Incidents: How to identify them and get help

COVID-19 is a prime example of an ongoing traumatic incident that will likely have many aftershocks globally, and on the individual, once it has passed. Probably long after it has passed.

Usually, a traumatic event unleashed on a person or group of people comes with feelings of fear, threat and anxiety, and it can cause long-term physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological distress. Afterwards, victims will need loads of time to heal and regain their sense of self. 

But what is trauma?

Trauma in this context is the emotional aftermath of living through something that has caused negative feelings or circumstances. 

Phoenix Australia refers to a traumatic event it as “any event that involves experiencing or witnessing actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence [and which] has the potential to be traumatic. Almost everyone who experiences trauma will be emotionally affected, and there are many different ways in which people will respond. Most people will recover quite quickly with the help of family and friends. For some, the effects can be long-lasting.

Often severe trauma or ongoing trauma such as living in a violent home or community environment or in a war zone leads to Post Traumatic Stress disorder.

According to, signs of trauma include irritability, dramatic mood changes that sneak up, anger, denial, depression, memory flashbacks, memory loss, loss of focus and concentration, changes in appetite, insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns. It also includes the fear that the trauma will recur on the anniversary of a traumatic event, withdrawal and isolation from others and activities, and physical strain such as headaches, nausea and the worsening of comorbidities such as diabetes or high blood pressure.  

A few decades ago, people who experienced emotional trauma without physical repercussions were expected to “get over it” or “pull themselves together”. However, these days, mental health and emotional healing are held in higher regard, with more people becoming aware of how emotional turmoil can affect physical health. 


Trauma can be triggered by many events such as the death of a loved one, divorce, physical pain or injury from a car crash, life-threatening illness such as cancer or COVID-19, war, natural disasters, terrorism, moving house or emigration, parental neglect, witnessing a death, rape, school bullying, domestic abuse and violence or imprisonment.

The stages of trauma 

Much like the four stages of grieving, the first stage of post-trauma is marked by denial, shutting down, shock and numbness as a means of self-protection. 

The following stages are characterised by sadness, anger, anxiety and confusion, intermingled with apathy, despair and hopelessness.

Trauma affects people in different ways, with some going through the various phases accepting that things will never be the same and that they need to find the best ways to function. Others who delay trauma by choosing to deny events, bargaining and trying to ‘magically fix things’ without dealing with the emotional baggage can take months, and sometimes years to function properly in their daily lives and in society.

Violence in SA lockdown

In South Africa, gender-based violence cases, as well as general domestic abuse cases, reached an all-time high during the first stages of the national COVID-19 lockdown in mid-2020. However, SA has always had a high rate of violent crimes committed against women and children; a pandemic on its own. 

In 2017, from January to August, in the Western Cape alone, 67 women and children were first raped and then murdered by people they knew.

Persistent signs of trauma in children should be reported immediately to the relevant child protection professionals. These signs are emotional outbursts, aggressive behaviour, withdrawal, persistent difficulty in sleeping, continued obsession with the traumatic event and serious problems at school.

Get professional assistance

Not everyone seeks professional help, especially when it comes to issues that affect mental and emotional health. This can be owing to many reasons, including stigma and fear of rejection, as well as access and affordability. 

Experts have come up with coping skills that victims can use to function in their daily lives, build resilience and gain emotional stability. 

These skills include: 

  • talking about the experience to family or friends, 
  • writing it down in a journal, 
  • being patient with yourself and giving up controlling behaviour, 
  • asking for support from loved ones or support groups led by a trained counsellor, 
  • eating wholesome and nutritious, balanced meals, 
  • resting enough, 
  • exercising, 
  • avoiding alcohol and drugs (these worsen the feelings of trauma symptoms).

In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, it is best to stick to a daily routine with scheduled activities, avoid moving or job changes or major life decisions, do hobbies or play gentle non-competitive sports and spend time with others even though you may not feel up to it. 

Should symptoms continue unabated and intrude on or destroy daily activities, work performance or personal relationships, you must seek professional help.

If you are supporting someone who has been through a traumatic event, ask the sufferer what you can do to support him or her. It is also important to gain an understanding of the distress, so you know what to expect and what not to say or do. Often the sufferer just wants to talk about the event, and that means supporters should give them safe, kind and non-judgmental space to be upset or to vent. 

Always advise that, if possible, the victim must speak to a professional. 

In a life-threatening or traumatic event, most times you will need the assistance of an emergency team of some sort. 

This is why an app like iER is so important. iER is South Africa’s only dedicated emergency response and disaster management network, backed by its own emergency-trained call centre and designed to respond to any emergency situation 24 hours a day, every day!

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